As July 1 and the start of NHL and San Jose Sharks free agency encroaches, a variety of questions arise for the San Jose Sharks. The most obvious one is this: can the team fit all their current players under the NHL salary cap? The answer is simple. They can’t. Not even close.
So how can Sharks general manager Doug Wilson handle a situation where a lot of salary must disappear for next season? Prioritize. We’ll prioritize the free agents along with potential players under contract who can be traded to create a salary cap compliant roster.
The Sharks Free Agency Rankings
Here is the ranking for the Sharks for players to keep.
1. Timo Meier is the Sharks most important player they need to re-sign. He is a restricted free agent and the youngest among the Sharks starters last season. He is also among the best players on the team. The only choice here is whether Meier will take a bridge deal, shorter in term and lesser in annual cap hit, to become an unrestricted free agent sooner. Either way, this is as no-brainer as it gets, Meier will be a key part of the Sharks for a long time.
2. Tim Heed, an unrestricted free gent, is a bit of a surprise sitting in the second spot. But with the departure of Justin Braun, Heed becomes the third right-handed defensemen, which moves him into a starting role. Whether he can handle the quantity of minutes and a full slate of games is unclear, but in his two seasons with the Sharks so far, he’s proven he can provide quality. A modest deal for a couple seasons gives everyone what they need here.
3. Joe Pavelski is a terrific player with 38 goals in 75 games last season. He’s the team captain, exceptionally skilled and very savvy. Plus the Sharks went 4-8-1 in the 13 games (regular and playoff) he missed last season. No one on the Sharks wants to see him leave town. On the downside, he’ll turn 35 in July and he’s never been fleet of foot. Big dollar contracts signed for players Pavelski’s age have a mixed track record. But, if a bidding war breaks out (and it just might), the Sharks don’t have the cap space to compete.
4. Brenden Dillon has another season on his current $3.27 million deal, but his name has come up as a potential trade piece. Trading him would be a bad idea. The Sharks have three left-handed defensemen and Dillon worked exceptionally well with a healthy Erik Karlsson (far better than Marc-Edouard Vlasic in that role). For about a quarter of the season, Dillon-Karlsson was the best defensive pairing in the league. You don’t give that up for an unknown. Wilson can’t afford to let this sort of chemistry go and risk giving Karlsson a partner who doesn’t fit him well.
5. Joe Thornton expects to come back and play in San Jose. The Sharks and Thornton can opt for other options not normally accorded players, though, which could save San Jose some money and help Thornton on the personal front. He’s said he’d like to play in Switzerland at some point (his wife is a native) and this might be a year he can play the regular season there and return to the Sharks for the playoffs. That said, Thornton simply isn’t as critical as he once was to the success of the team, even if he’s as popular as ever.
6. Kevin Labanc is among the team’s youngest starters and put up 56 points in 2018-19. He is a restricted free agent and will bring a hefty return in a trade if the Sharks can not afford him. Losing Labanc will hurt, but getting a hefty return makes retaining him less critical.
7. Joonas Donskoi is an unrestricted free agent who will likely leave. The Sharks had him in third and fourth-line roles, which limited his upside. I like Donskoi’s game more than the Sharks coaches seem to, which means the Sharks would be hard-pressed to keep Donskoi. He appeared snake-bitten at times, but I expect he’d be affordable after a modest 37- point season. Plus, there’s some injury history on top of it.
8. Melker Karlsson has another season on his $2 million deal and it might not happen as a member of the Sharks. He is a solid player, netting 12 goals in a fourth-line role. Couple that with effective penalty killing and he’s got value. The Sharks will need some younger players to step up and two of those can be had for the price of one Melker.
9. Gustav Nyquist won’t be affordable. The former Detroit Red Wing posted 60 points last season and will look to land the biggest contract of his career. He was very open about enjoying his time in San Jose, but his price tag is outside the Sharks budget. He’ll get paid well somewhere, but he wasn’t nearly special enough during his time in teal to merit a premium deal.
10. Aaron Dell is the Sharks back-up netminder and he’s coming off a poor season. That said, he had a pair of strong seasons before that, so there is reason to think positively here. He has one more season at $1.9 million left on his deal. His cap hit limits his value in a trade, and reports are he is on the block. Still the Sharks need cap space in return more than they need an asset like a mid-round draft pick. The team has goalies on their AHL squad ready to attempt the jump to the NHL.
More Sharks Free Agency Considerations
The Sharks have additional free agents who won’t have much impact on the cap in Joakim Ryan, Micheal Haley (both unrestricted) and Dylan Gambrell (restricted). Expect the Sharks to retain Gambrell. While they’d be wise to keep Ryan (especially with fellow left-handed defenseman Radim Simek coming off a major knee injury), I’d expect he’ll play elsewhere. Haley will get a spot if the GM and coach want someone in the lineup who can fight.
The Sharks Challenge
Doug Wilson has this challenge right now, and getting his priorities straight is more critical than ever. He can sign players 1-5 on this list with some ‘hometown discount’ help from Pavelski to make it happen.
There are more considerations, but a very important one is this: this is a one year problem.
The Sharks have no one ready for a major pay increase in 2020-21. Radim Simek and Dillon might get modest ones. At the same time, a few contracts end which can be replaced at lower cost (Melker Karlsson, Aaron Dell). I expect Paul Martin’s buyout deal to get traded shortly. If this doesn’t occur, the cap hit comes off the books for 2020-21. It isn’t until 2022-23, when Tomas Hertl’s deal ends, is there a Sharks player who’ll need a major raise to stay put.
What comes next for the Sharks will be intriguing, but it won’t be easy. Wilson has to manage for today, while also understanding there will be room to breath again next season. Having a clear priorities can allow Wilson to make the most of his difficult task.